By Tim Kelly
Aspiring 15-year-old Ocean City baseball star Tommy Finnegan has yet to throw a pitch at the high school level.
Hasn’t fired a rising fastball or snapped off a curve. Hasn’t toed the rubber or adjusted his cap.
Heck, Tommy Finnegan hasn’t officially even made the Red Raiders’ varsity squad yet. For that matter, he’s still only in this third marking period at Ocean City High School – where he takes honors courses and carries a 4.1 grade point average.
Such facts of life haven’t stopped the University of Kentucky, a member of the baseball-rich Southeastern Conference, from offering the 6-foot, 6-inch, 180-pound freshman right-hander a scholarship for athletics and academics.
Nor have these facts prevented Finnegan from making the big decision on his future and his verbal commitment to the Wildcats, who opened their season this week with a three-game sweep of Austin Peay University.
“After speaking to the coaches and seeing (the Lexington-based campus) I knew Kentucky was the right fit,” Tommy said. “After my first telephone conversation with the pitching coach (Assistant Coach Jim Belanger) I turned to my mom and said, ‘I can picture him as my coach for four years.’”
“They didn’t just talk to me about baseball, and that impressed me,” he said. “They asked about my family and my interests and to get to know me as a person. That really stood out.”
Things came together rather quickly when Tommy, his mom Trish and maternal granddad Wayne Shelton flew to Lexington for a one-day winter camp for prospective players. There Belanger and Head Coach Nick Mingione rolled out the Kentucky bluegrass welcome mat.
“(The coaches) came right up to me and introduced themselves and thanked us for being there,” Tommy said. “They were excited, and that means a lot.”
“(Mingione) says all the things you want to hear as a parent,” Trish said. “It’s Tommy’s future and his decision. Still, I left there feeling these are men I could leave my son with who would not only advance his development in baseball but care for him as a person.”
Tommy felt just as strongly. “Kentucky offered everything I was looking for and more,” he said.
The day after they returned to New Jersey, Kentucky made its offer and Tommy made his verbal commitment, and more importantly, the commitment in his mind.
“That part of my baseball future (is decided) and I can concentrate on school, training, keeping my arm loose, things like that,” he said.
Indeed, on Tuesday after a full school day and three-hour basketball practice (Tommy sees minutes on the Red Raiders’ varsity) he asked his mother for a ride to the Baseball Performance Center in Pleasantville to work out.
Whatever lies ahead has not adversely affected day-to-day life, Tommy and his parents agree. Committing to Kentucky is simply the latest piece of the process, which dates back to when Tommy first began turning heads on Ocean City baseball fields as a 9-year-old.
“I was always the biggest kid for my age, and I always tried to use my size to my advantage,” Tommy said.
He quickly became a well-known player through Little League, youth leagues, the travel baseball circuit, and increasingly at national youth baseball showcase events.
The announcement of Kentucky’s and Finnegan’s verbal commitment is believed to be the first of its kind in South Jersey. In 2016, former Ocean City player Sean Mooney of Marmora made a similar verbal commitment to St. John’s University, but following his freshman year. Mooney is now the ace of the Red Storm pitching staff and appears headed to a pro career.
Finnegan knows a verbal commitment is just that, and nothing is guaranteed.
“Outwardly, he’s pretty laid-back and realizes there are still many things that have to come together,” said his dad Tom, an Ocean City police officer. “He’s never been that (conceited) kid.”
He’s not the only standout athlete in the family.
Tom starred in baseball at Mainland High School. Trish was an all-state softball player at Ocean City. Older sister Emma, 17, is a starter for the Red Raiders’ defending South Jersey Group 3 champion girls’ basketball team. The couple’s third child, Luke, 11, is a budding player as well.
Raiders’ head baseball coach Andrew Bristol isn’t the least bit concerned about Tommy’s pending arrival on the practice field for the perennial South Jersey power.
“I’ve known about Tommy since he was 10 years old. I’m one of his basketball coaches. I’m one of his teachers (criminal justice and honors history). He is not an over-the-top type of kid. He’s a very calm and focused individual.”
Bristol said the Ocean City program stresses team first, and the upperclassmen understand every spot is up for grabs. The player who makes the team better is the guy who will play. Tommy understands this as well.
“I know everyone I face will be coming for me, bringing their best. I’m going to have to be on my A-game,” he said. “Also, Kentucky is going to be watching me closely.”
The trend in sports these days is to scout younger players and to pursue those with size, in the hope they will develop as players and possibly become something special.
“Pro teams and colleges project out a few years,” Tom Finnegan said. “Right now, Tommy is about as good as he can possibly be – as a ninth grader. They are looking down the road to a day when he could grow even more and fill out that tall frame.”
As the cliché goes, you can’t coach size. Nevertheless, Tommy and Kentucky can’t lose, because Finnegan is such an outstanding student.
“Baseball won’t be forever, and a lot of things have to go right (to make it in the sport),” Tommy said. “I’m going to a great university getting an education.”
The more folks you talk to about Finnegan, the more you hear about his maturity level, kindness toward others, and normalcy. At least as normal as a 15-year-old, 6-foot-6 straight-A student can be.
Off the court he enjoys music – classic rock, pop, rap and everything in between. He’s also an avid surfer who enjoys hanging out with his buddies on OC’s beaches.
These down-to-earth attributes serve him well on the mound.
“My parents and coaches have always stressed to show as little emotion as possible. To keep level-headed at all times regardless of the score or the outcome of the game,” he said. “And to remember that as the pitcher, the ball is in my hands and I control the game.”